Francis Lee delivers a captivating vision of desire in 1840s coastal England.
Writer/director Francis Lee has released his follow-up to his much-lauded debut God’s Own Country. In this aching portrait of a lesbian affair in early Victorian England, Lee continues on form; crafting an engaging albeit narratively rocky, if you’ll excuse the pun, cinematic experience.
Lee plays with sensation and engagement with what has become already a signature reserve; the film is well into its first act before any substantial dialogue is heard at all. The film opens with the sounds of a wire brush on the floor, and long shots of our protagonist’s hands – he invites us to feel the film as much as observe it. Lee plays with empathy — we are invited to engage with the sensory experience of our characters, to inhabit the world of Lyme-Regis from within, which ultimately creates an extraordinary one-two punch with the more profound emotional beats.
As Saoirse Ronan, refreshingly reserved as our young love interest Charlotte, is lowered into the bitter surf of the English Channel, a contemporary remedy for “melancholia”, Lee crafts a scene as arresting sensually as narratively or emotionally. When Mary (Kate Winslet) crawls into her bed and shivers, the chill of the room spreads through our bones. During our first of many outings combing the beach for fossil specimens, which forms the spine of the film, we have still yet to engage with any dialogue; instead, Lee opts for oppressive, perhaps even excessive, sounds of waves crashing on rock. Having become accustomed to watching films on smaller screens at home throughout quarantine, this opener is almost uncomfortable but completely captivating – the scene is unequivocally cinematic, we brace ourselves against the onslaught of the crash of coastal water as our protagonist braces herself against the bitter conditions of her life. Scenes like these compound Lee’s commitment to sensory experience – he is less than generous with sweeping aerial shots of the landscape, which would have made for easy production value — instead, we get tight, focused shots of Winslet eating a boiled egg or a pasty, or a suspended shot of Ronan taking off her woollen socks to stretch her exposed feet on the rock; this is a film to be heard, tasted, and felt as much as seen.
Unfortunately, some of Lee’s narrative decisions cannot live up to the excellence with which he commands the aesthetic. The sexual and romantic relationship between Mary and Charlotte is clumsily foreshadowed by an uncomfortably direct shot of Ronan fawning over a local baby. It seems Lee half-commits to the idea that Charlotte is open to pursuing a romantic relationship with Mary because she is unfulfilled in her childless marriage, and yet during the emotional climax of the film this is not revisited, and it seems a strange thing to focus on for a film that is so sparing in gaudy exposition.
However, even with some occasionally inconsistent characterisation, Lee draws a charming performance out of Ronan, finding new physical dimensions, new emotional angles as of yet untapped, a gentle reminder that Ronan’s meteoric career thus far is merely a prologue to some extraordinary work to come. But it is Winslet as Mary who truly swings for the fences. With a gruff physicality and near-perfectly pitched acerbic tone, Winslet withholds emotion like a wolf on a thin string, always suggesting something tumultuous behind the eyes with only the barest of facial twitches. Winslet’s motivations are also more clearly defined, her previous relationship with Fiona Shaw’s charmingly realised Elizabeth, and her fraught domestic relationship with her mother precipitate her interest in the bright young thing who falls into her world. Even still, Winslet takes a well-written idea and forges a towering example of craft; she should, and very likely will, be duly awarded.
Michael O’Connor‘s costume design must be noted; committing to historical elements that certain iterations of historical fiction on screen seems to be intimidated by — notably use of bonnets, wearing of hair up at all times for women, etc, while still crafting identity through fashion, Mary’s sameness playing off Charlotte’s youthful finery like dialogue. Once again, Lee, and indeed cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who continues a string of extraordinary work in visual artistry (see Jackie, Rust and Bone), deserve immense praise for the framing of this relationship. Many of the beach scenes feature unusually but beautifully framed conversations between the two — one is rarely seen talking without the reaction of the other within the frame, and even focused close-ups of one character will frame the other peripherally, out of focus but present, never one without the other. Often it seems filmmakers eschew these more modern framing devices when shooting period pieces, as if any technology involved even peripherally with the experience of capturing a scene will suspend the realism. With this, Lee again aligns himself with a thoroughly modern group of filmmakers, poised to create an extraordinary generation of British filmmaking.
Ultimately, what Lee seems to ask is: what is a fulfilling life? What is life fulfilled? As we watch Winslet excuse herself from a party for a cigarette, a scene that almost beat-for-beat mirrors Fleabag’s Season 2 premiere, the question becomes suddenly modern. As we watch Mary and Charlotte temper love with propriety, right with wrong, rightness with truth, we must consider our own emotional juggling act. Do we take pride in work as Mary does in her excavation, or in marriage and children as Charlotte is expected to? It is only in one or two scenes where these characters are imagined to be content, to be fulfilled, one being a scene in which both Mary and Charlotte, alone on the beach, take a swim; in angelic white clothing, framed against a beating sun this scene feels like a baptism, a washing clean, a rebirth into the world of love. Maybe that is the only fulfilling thing there is.